Who is the Samaritan?

As I’ve been thinking about this coming Sunday’s Gospel Lectionary text, I’ve been feeling like I can’t say anything new. I mean, it is the “Good Samaritan” for crying out loud. Everyone knows this scripture, even if they don’t even know that it is scripture. We have “Good Samaritan” laws to protect those who lend helping hands to strangers. This and the story of the Prodigal are ubiquitous. It is almost as if they don’t mean anything anymore.

Up in the far right you can see Jericho at the bank of the sea. And this is the landscape they had to cover.
Up in the far right you can see Jericho at the bank of the sea. And this is the landscape they had to cover.

I’m afraid that as I preach this Sunday that folks will hear and think a few of these following things.

They might think about the fact that this was a parable told two thousand years ago, and so the story no longer has any meaning.

Folks could hear about the Samaritans and think that either we don’t know any, or know the glossy Sunday School answer that they were strangers that lived in the land of Israel, and didn’t really get along with the Israelites because of some worship site arguments.

We could hear about loving our neighbors as our selves, and know that everyone is our neighbor… but then the problem gets too big to handle, and so surely God didn’t mean for us to fix ALL the world’s problems today, really. Really?

I’ve read stories that flipped the script, and said that we were the ones receiving care from the outsiders, and I’ve got a story that I could use about the time that we had a flat tire. We were sitting there, trying to get the hub off our tire, and on Easter Sunday a stranger pulls in behind us and proceeds to help us completely change our tire for us. It was part of an old job he had. He did a fabulous job, even if he did get in trouble with his wife for being late.

But that feels too easy.

If I’m the stranger, then I’ve not very strange, am I. No, wait, I’m the victim who was left half dead on the side of the road.

See, when we read the story of the Good Samaritan, it is far too easy to slander the priest and Levite, and we can explain away why they couldn’t get ceremonially unclean. I struggle with that, especially as I plan on running circuit. What if I didn’t show up to reach one Sunday because I was helping someone who had been beaten up because of a drug deal gone sour. I wonder if my congregations would be ok with me not letting them know I would be coming because I had to take a stranger to the hospital.

What about if we thought of the Samaritan as someone who is the stranger of current times. What about the Muslim, the Atheist, the Undocumented Worker, the Person Who Isn’t Fluent, or the Gay, Lesbian, or Transgendered? I don’t really have much of a problem with that. I have friends like that. What would make me more uncomfortable? What about if the one who comes along to help the victim is someone from Westboro Baptist Church? what about a Mormon or Seventh Day Adventist? Or a bigot and racist?

Don’t be the Levite. Don’t be the priest. The preacher always says that, but do we warn about going along the road alone?

Watch out, you’re a woman, you shouldn’t be alone. Something could happen to you, walking alone like that.

I feel like there is another way to tell this story. I’m not sure what it is.

We tell the story in Vacation Bible School and encourage our children to look for the strangers and take care of them. But when VBS is over, we warn kids not to talk to strangers. What kind of a witness is that anyway? Yes, dangers abound in our world.

The reason that this story is even a story is because of the man who fell victim to robbers and thieves. The reason that this story is a story that Jesus tells is because a man who had a question couldn’t get the whole understanding from a rote repetition of the ancient scriptures.

Yes. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, being, mind, and Spirit. And love your neighbor as yourself. And love the stranger.

Who is my neighbor? Who was the one who showed love and mercy? The outcast did. The neighbor is the one who showed mercy. Not the one with joining property rights.

Can I ask my congregations to be the stranger and the victim, the ones showing mercy and being neighborly? How do I encourage them, and myself, to live into the places that are uncomfortable. Sacrificial. Out of our way and out of our comfort zone.

Jeremy Smith on Hacking Christianity wrote about his hope that this story wouldn’t make any sense in five hundred years because we will have moved on from violence. I hope so as well, but I doubt it will happen. Pardon my cynicism, but we still hate. God’s Kingdom hasn’t come to reign, and until that happens, I don’t think that we will rid the world of systems of injustice and violence. There will be people who are without, and some of those without will turn to any means necessary to get what they need to survive.

Why don’t we ever wonder about the robbers and thieves on the road? Why haven’t I heard a sermon about them? The Hiwayman came riding, riding. The Hiwayman came riding, and was shot into a pool of blood.

This story is full of those who are without hope. The only one who delivers any hope is the Samaritan. The thieves are caught in a system of injustice, the priest and the Levite are caught in a system of requirement, the innkeeper has to keep a business running, and the Samaritan, breaks the system.

The Samaritan had places to go. Things to do. The Samaritan was on the road for a reason, and had many supplies with him on his journey. But his purpose is redirected when he saw the man. And he had compassion. His heart was tugged to the side of the road. He was pulled to care for this man, this victim.

I wonder if the victim had been preparing to die. I wonder if he was waiting for some ethereal last rites to descend upon him, and allow him to relax into the comforting eternal hands of God. Wounds are not much fun to heal from. Did he have to get a leg amputated later?

I’m pretty sure that I can identify with all the characters in this segment of scripture. (Pericope, for all my seminary friends.) I think I usually am the lawyer. I want to justify myself, and I am pretty sure that I have all the Glossy Sunday School answers down pat. I know my way through the Bible forward and backward… though I might get lost somewhere in the histories or minor prophets. The knowledge of the order of the Books of the Bible doesn’t do me much good when I am faced with real live problems. Especially when they are living, and honking from my driveway. I’m not very good at showing compassion then.

So where do you show compassion? When is your heart moved to help the stranger, and when do you help?

And when your heart is moved to compassion, act. O God, how easy those words are to say, and how terribly difficult they are to follow.

The story of the Good Samaritan is a parable. It is a story. But Jesus told many stories, and not many of them have become so famous that they live in their own right. And the crux of this story is not that someone fell victim to robbers; but that someone who thought they had all the answers tried to justify himself. He learned something about mercy and did it while becoming more open to loving the stranger and the outcast in the midst of it.

The reason this story takes on life is because it is supposed to make us uncomfortable. We grasp at safe answers, but we are supposed to dig deeper.

We are called to pour compassion out like the healing salve of wine and oil. We are called to pour out our love and mercy and hope in the face of injustice. It doesn’t really matter what injustice looks like, it will always be ugly and will always have victims. Those victims are our neighbors, and we are called to love and care for them. Even if we look like strangers to them.

God calls us to be neighbors. In the inconvenient, stressful, unsafe, dangerous time. God, break our hearts, pour us out, and bring your compassion to our hands, as we bring your balm to our world.



2 thoughts on “Who is the Samaritan?”

  1. I daresay for many in our congregations, what might seem an “easy” direction is more challenging than we might think. Many have heard this as a do-gooder sermon (Kenda Dean’s MTD looms larger over the “usual” treatment, I’m sure). I would not be surprised if few have really grasped the ethnic/outsider angle – that Jesus told a story about a good “illegal” immigrant, or Gitmo detainee, or drug addict. I think that story is always shocking, no matter who the “Samaritan” of any given context is. But I concur that preaching the “familiar” text is often the most challenging.

    I don’t know if I’ve heard a sermon that identifies us primarily with the bandits. That could be interesting.


    1. Clearly, I’ve wandered quite a bit through this post. I’ve been struggling with where to go, and where to take folks. Now, the work of the second half of the week is to find a story. A heart clenching story. It’s not a small thing.


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